Do we dare to feel a hint of optimism? After watching the pandemic like a car accident in slow motion behind masks and screens, COVID-19 case numbers in Ontario and most of the country are finally starting to decline. Chalk it up to a ramped up vaccine rollout that finally makes its effects felt.
And thank God – some hope is badly needed. Even for those lucky enough to work from home, the past year has been a breeze. While we should of course devote ourselves to the tireless efforts of the front line and essential workers, remote work was hardly a vacation. Endless Zoom meetings, the relentless pinging of email, Slack, and other messaging apps, and the feeling that work isn’t as far away as it is ubiquitous has frayed nerves and tired and worn out souls.
But as with food and grocery delivery services or in the virtual school, remote working seems to be a pandemic phenomenon that is cementing itself in the new normal – whether we want it or not.
However, since this is inevitable, it is worth thinking about the cost. Indeed, since technology enables work to penetrate all aspects of life and make work inevitable without a profound cultural shift or even new regulation, remote work can actually make life worse rather than better.
To many, this may sound counterintuitive or even bizarre. After all, with Remote Work you can work in your pajamas – who could argue with that? And it is true that it undeniably has a multitude of advantages: the absence of commuting and a corresponding increase in time for family, friends and leisure; a more flexible working day that can allow for errands during normal business hours; and the simple but not insignificant relief of working on a couch or in casual clothes.
The switch to remote is not abstract either. Canadian tech giant Shopify has already announced a home relocation, as has Twitter, some major American banks, and countless other companies. Remote work is here and it’s here to stay.
If there are benefits, what is it about?
Long before the pandemic, new technology began to change the way we work. As the volume of email increased over time, it went from being a useful communication tool to being an incessant waste of time – less something that kept you in touch with your co-workers than something that kept you chained to them. Then came the smartphone – the device with which you can check your messages or make phone calls while you are in nature or simply in the grocery store. The work became even more insidious. In response to a crowded inbox, we received Slack or Microsoft’s Teams – supposedly things designed to streamline communication, but which in reality turned into endless communication programs where the conversation about work never seems to end.
When COVID-19 and office workers started working from home, the infiltration of work into life only intensified. The rise of Zoom and related video conferencing tools has forced millions to pretend to be paying attention to a blurry picture of their coworkers. More than that, the work drifted, expanded, expanded. Like a gas filling a room, a working day without the confines of an office that is opened and closed at a set time bleeds into the evening, the early morning, omnipresent. Forget the sad lunch at the desk. Now we’re dragging ourselves out of bed to land directly on a laptop. This means nothing of the increased workload that builds up due to the assumption that remote workers have more time to spend or are more productive.
The problem is that the technology of work has changed but its culture has not. While some countries like France have introduced so-called “separation rights” – rules on how companies can contact employees outside of normal business hours – Canada is only in the preliminary stages of thinking about the problems.
But when we enter a post-pandemic world there is an urgent need for us to change something, either culturally or legally. The relief many find over remote working isn’t for the inherent good – it’s about taking a break from the drudgery of commuting at rush hour, enforced courtesies about the proverbial water cooler, and the oppressive constraints of modern capitalism.
A start could be to limit how much work can be done remotely, or when and under what circumstances they are expected to be on call or to struggle.
Work is a central facet of life. It occupies our days and can give shape and meaning to our existences. Since new technology allows work to multiply in new forms, spread over the day and week, and follow us home and outside, we can at least set some limits on how much is expected of us. We are in the process of creating a new normal. When it comes to remote work, when the distinction between off and on is very blurry, we need to redraw hard lines and make sure our entire lives aren’t swallowed up by a slippery idea disguising bondage as liberation.